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When Hearts Break

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on the Scenic Route

Having just returned from a sweet foray into wilderness, I am happy to report it’s still there. 

It’s an interesting year in the high country. Huckleberries at 3,200 feet are hard little green orbs. At 4,200, they are barely blooming. Syringa has finally blossomed at 5,000 feet on south slopes, and bear grass is just coming on, spreading up the mountain like rising clouds. The mosquito hatch just moved past annoying toward maddening. Under lodgepole and subalpine fir forests above 5,500 feet, intermittent white dunes bury snow brush, gooseberry and tag alder four to eight feet deep. Huge snowfields lie in north-facing cirques. It is the first of July by all signs. The season is a month behind itself in the ragged western edge of the Rocky Mountains.

My absent friend Dick Wentz would love my use of that geographical designation. Any time I referred in his presence to the region radiating from Spokane as the Inland Northwest, he would huff and dig out a field guide—of which he owned many—crack it open and point at the enclosed region map.

“Wemmidge,” he would growl, “where does it say ‘Inland Northwest?’ We live in the goddam Rockies.”

“Wemmidge” was a name stolen from a character in a Hemingway story on the occasion of rekindling an old flame—whose, I’m not telling. In the story, a friend of Wemmidge sees an old girlfriend who has broken his heart walking down the street and turns to him and says, “Wemmidge, it may not be over.” We were both suffering from broken hearts at the time, and we found it good comic relief.

During those days, it was part of my job to go make Dick Wentz laugh every afternoon. Every day at 2:00 I said to my boss, “I’m going across the street to go see if Wentz is still alive.”  My boss would bless my departure with a wry smile, for he was as fond of Dick as I was, and, at the time, there was a chance that on any given day, he might not be.

Dick had developed a condition that disallowed delivery of the oxygen he needed to walk upstairs. The real problem went unidentified for a time, but after educated guesses like emphysema and anemia, which didn’t prove out, they got around to looking at his heart, and, as I already told you, it was broken.

The doctor who looked at Dick’s heart scan came into the exam room with the results in his hand and asked Dick to join him at the window.

The doctor cracked the shades. “See that building over there?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Dick growled (he growled a lot).

“Do you recognize it?” the doctor asked.

“Hell, yes. It’s the hospital.”

“Right, and as soon as the ambulance gets here, that’s where you’re going.”

Dick told me that story in such a way that we both got tears in our eyes as a result. If there was anything that Dick and I knew how to do together, it was laugh.

After a while, they let him out of the hospital and gave him a whole bunch of medications to take—some of which he did, and some of which he didn’t—and new rules to live by—some of which he followed, and some which he didn’t.

That’s when I started going to see him every afternoon at 2:00.

Did you ever have a friend who can say the most mundane thing with such a twist of inflection that you both suffer paroxysms of laughter? Part of the laughter is the joy of knowing that the chemistry is a joint possession of yours and theirs, and no matter how long it is since you last saw each other, it flows both ways as soon as either of you opens your mouth: forth and back, ’round and about and through the eye of a needle that puts you both in stitches. “Laughter is good for the soul,” another friend of mine tells me. It’s also good for the heart.

In spite of his friends’ best efforts, Dick’s heart never worked quite right again. After a few more years of struggles—as well as many good laughs—it quit altogether.

I have a book in my collection, National Audubon Society Field Guide to the Rocky Mountain States, a gift from Dick. The states include Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and Colorado; all of each. It came with a note inside, reminding me that we live in the Rocky Mountains, not the “goddam Inland Northwest.” It is signed, “Wemmidge.”

Spring has come late to the high country this year, but come it has, here on the ragged western edge of the Rockies. My friend Dick can still make me laugh, and still reminds me that it—whatever “it” may be—may not be over.

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Author info

Sandy Compton Sandy Compton Sandy Compton is one of the original contributors to The River Journal, and owner and publisher at Blue Creek Press (www.bluecreekpress.com). His latest book is Side Trips From Cowboy: Addiction, Recovery and the Western American Myth

Tagged as:

friendship, Dick Wentz, The Scenic Route, Inland Northwest, Rocky Mountains

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